Fandom: Guardians of the Galaxy
Wordcount: This part, 2876
Peter waited to see if Rocket would want to take charge of his admittance to the medical center, but the time was growing near and he still hadn’t emerged from Groot’s bunk. Squaring his shoulders, Peter rapped on his door, paused, then opened it.
Rocket was sitting on the edge of the bed, dressed in his usual jumpsuit but without the braces on his arm and leg. He kept his eyes on the floor, showing no reaction to Peter’s entrance, but his ears were swiveling back and forth repeatedly as if they couldn’t remember where they were supposed to point.
“It’s time,” said Peter softly.
Rocket nodded, but didn’t move. Anything that Peter could think to say or ask was pointless, so he leaned down and picked Rocket up, moving slowly to allow him time to protest if this wasn’t what he wanted.
Every time he had carried him before, Peter had noticed how much heavier Rocket was than he looked, but it was unaccountably easier to bear his weight now. He felt limp, but pliable, breathing regularly and with his head resting naturally against Peter’s chest.
Gamora was waiting for them at the ship’s hatch. Residents here used a kind of hovercar tuned to their road system for ground transportation, and she had taken the precaution of renting one for them the night before and parking it right where they were docked. It wasn’t roomy inside, but it was comfortable, and Gamora changed the settings to add an opaque tint to the windows before keying in the address of Dr. Shanthig’s office.
Rocket grabbed a handful of Peter’s shirt when he tried to put him down on the seat, so he positioned himself to accommodate the other passenger on his lap. Gamora had her eyes on the directional camera, although there wasn’t much actual driving to be done after entering the destination into the car’s navigation. With no windows to look out of, Peter found himself leaning his head back and absently stroking Rocket, who made no movement aside from the occasional sigh.
The journey was short, and Rocket tensed up when the vehicle stopped. Peter hesitated, not sure how to proceed from here if Rocket didn’t want the public to see him being carried, but Gamora opened a panel on the interior wall and removed a built-in device that unfolded into a small wheelchair. Peter had to smile; of course she had reserved a handicapped vehicle. Gamora thought of everything.
None of them had spoken a word since they had left the Milano, and Peter’s voice sounded alien in his own ears when he greeted the assistant who admitted them into the building. Standing behind the wheelchair, all he could see of Rocket was the back of his head with his ears in a constant back-and-forth motion again.
“I’ll go now,” said Gamora, and she bent down to lay her fingertips on Rocket’s hand. “Good luck, friend.” When she straightened, she had her eye on the doctor’s aide, who had thus far been nothing but courteously remote. “I trust you understand that there will be grievous consequences if any harm comes to him,” she stated. “Anyone who has given me any cause for retribution has regretted it very soon after.”
“Hey now!” Peter scolded, but he had to admit, it was satisfying to see her flaunt her deadly skills, and it was the kind of gesture Rocket would appreciate. “Don’t mind her,” he said to the rattled young aide. “She’s just, you know. Gamora, Daughter of Thanos.”
It might have been his imagination, but he thought he heard Rocket chuckle.
They carried on without Gamora, through a network of corridors that made Peter understand why they needed a guide. Dr. Shanthig was waiting in the operating room, along with two other doctors who had apparently received instructions on how to act around Rocket: all of them were sitting in low chairs that put them near his eye level, and all of them introduced themselves looking at him rather than Peter.
“Uh-huh,” Rocket mumbled, which was more than Peter had hoped for, and Dr. Shanthig stood up and motioned him to wheel the chair over to the table in the center of the room.
She went over everything, pointing out each tool and explaining how it was used, giving them the numbers on how long each stage should take, warning Rocket about when he should expect to feel pain or go numb. He made no response at any point, but he did seem to be listening, and Peter was fairly sure that this was the right approach. None of his previous surgeries would have included a briefing, that was for sure.
“And as for your role, Mr. Quill,” said Dr. Shanthig at last, switching her focus to him. “You’ll be sitting here, by Rocket’s head. Imagine there’s an invisible line over his neck, and don’t reach past it. Don’t lean past it. Don’t put so much as a hair past it. You can speak, quietly, but don’t ask us any questions unless you absolutely must. If you have to leave the room for any reason, go to the door and an aide will help you.” She crossed her arms, sizing him up. “I’m sure you’re the type to think you’re above rules, but these are for the safety of--”
“I got it,” said Peter, raising both hands. “There’s rules and then there’s rules.”
She nodded, satisfied, then looked down at Rocket. “Are you ready?”
There was no answer, so Peter crouched down next to the wheelchair and confided, “They won’t start unless you give us a go-ahead.”
“Yeah,” said Rocket, though it sounded like he was forcing the word out.
Peter lifted him up, taking care to make it look like he was just giving him a boost, and stayed standing close to the table so it would be less obvious that Rocket had grabbed his hand and wasn’t letting go. “Hey Rock. Try to think up some good insults. This is your big chance to say whatever you want with no consequences.”
He didn’t get a snarky riposte, and he realized they were past the point where jokes would help. That was probably the same point where dignity wasn’t such a big deal, though, so Peter started petting him again, and the claws digging into his hand began to loosen.
Dr. Shanthig was holding both of her empty hands out in front of Rocket, which confused Peter until he saw that Rocket’s nose was twitching. Only after he had sniffed her thoroughly did she step back to have her surgical mask and gloves put on. Peter moved around the table and into the chair they had brought for him, leaving his hand on Rocket’s head. “I’m right here,” he murmured, wondering for the first time whether there was anything at all he could say that would really help.
He had been waiting for a debate on how best to get Rocket out of his clothes, but instead, the first thing that Dr. Shanthig did was spray his ears and muzzle from a small bottle. “An anaesthetic,” she explained. “It was developed for patients who couldn’t take injections for one reason or another.” Rocket stared at her for a few seconds, sneezed, then lay down on his back without anyone even requesting it.
Peter shot a look at the doctor, concerned that he was already unsure about what was going on. “Was there a sedative in that?”
“No. Remember he may react to these stimuli in ways you can’t predict. We’ll be starting now, Quill. No more questions and keep your hands above his neck.”
There were no restraints on the table, but one of the other two doctors turned on a hard light generator and manipulated its beam to lift Rocket up on one side and support him as he lay there at a tilt, and there were a few more glowing bands set on his joints that Peter assumed were securing him into his current pose. Like the anaesthetic spray, it was a less invasive way of doing what had to be done, but Peter wasn’t sure yet how Rocket would take it. At the moment he had his eyes squeezed shut, and his fur was bristling as if his skin itself was attempting to escape.
Dr. Shanthig selected a sharp-looking instrument and began using it to slice away the jumpsuit, and Rocket’s eyes popped open. He snapped his jaws, clearly trying to bite but unable to move enough to reach anything.
“Talk to him,” said Dr. Shanthig, in such a commanding tone that it took Peter a second to realize she meant him.
He said the first things that came to mind, textbook words of reassurance, but for some reason they seemed to be working. Rocket’s eyes were on him now, and his mouth was closed, though a low whine was vibrating in his throat. Peter rubbed the fur between his ears and repeated that everything was going to be fine.
To his surprise, Rocket answered. “What are you changing?”
Quiet as his voice was, Peter was sure he hadn’t misheard him, but he didn’t understand, either. “What do you mean?”
“Changing. What will I be?”
Peter thought about conditioning again, the associations that Rocket would have with this kind of procedure, and suddenly the question sounded completely reasonable. “Doc? I think he’s--”
“Having a flashback,” Dr. Shanthig replied without looking his way. “We won’t need you to inform us if something is wrong, Mr. Quill. Enough questions.”
He nodded weakly. The doctors had fully removed Rocket’s clothing and were starting to shave off patches of his fur, and the last thing they needed was for him to notice. Peter had to keep his attention. He took a deep breath and addressed Rocket directly: “We’re not changing anything. You’ll be Rocket. You’ll be a pain in the ass with a gun fetish. A Guardian of the Galaxy. My best friend.”
“Peter?” It sounded uncertain, but hopeful, as if he had just realized who was there.
“Yeah buddy. The one and only. People call me Star-Lord.”
The items that the medical team were handling now looked more like a programmer’s tools than surgical instruments. Dr. Shanthig adjusted the positions of several surrounding monitors, and of Rocket himself in his glowing supports. His broken arm and leg, both mostly hairless now, were pointed up and toward her, though his head stayed where it was.
Abruptly she spoke to Peter again. “We’re turning off his voicebox. He’ll still be able to hear you, but he won’t respond. I’ll let you know when it’s back on.”
“You got that?” Peter asked Rocket, hoping he didn’t feel slighted that the doctor hadn’t said it to him. Rocket made a tiny noise that might have been affirmative, and then, as advertised, he lost his voice.
It wasn’t hard to think of what to say to him anymore. Inspired by his own tongue-in-cheek identification as Star-Lord, Peter told the entire story of how they had met, saved the galaxy, and formed the team, leaving in his usual embellishments that always made Rocket roll his eyes when the tale came out in a bar. When he finished, he segued right into a memory from his own life with the Ravagers, which he was fairly sure that Rocket had never heard before. It involved a few huge explosions, so maybe it would capture his fancy.
From that point on Peter barely stopped talking at all. He told stories from Earth and jokes from crime dens. He sang songs, whenever he knew all of the words to one that he remembered Rocket liking. He didn’t try to get Rocket to communicate any preferences, but he could see that he was listening. If Peter paused while Rocket’s eyes were closed, they would snap open and dart around to make sure he was still there, so Peter made a point of laying a hand on his head whenever he wasn’t speaking.
The medical team only talked to each other, and Peter couldn’t understand what most of it meant any more than he could understand what they were doing with their tools and machines. Once or twice, though, he heard a quiet laugh from them when he reached a punchline -- they were listening, too.
“Time for a break,” Dr. Shanthig announced.
Peter looked up, startled. The three of them were stepping back and removing gloves and masks, and Rocket was laid on his back with a dark sheet covering him up to his neck. The aide had returned to the room, and the doctors seemed to be handing over monitoring duties to her.
“You should stretch your legs, Mr. Quill,” said one of Shanthig’s assistants. “Get a cup of coffee, if you’re planning to stay through the next part.”
It was hard to tell how much time had passed, but Peter did have some aches that he hadn’t noticed before, not to mention a dry throat from too much talking. He stood from the chair and rolled his shoulders, and Rocket’s eyes followed him up. “What’s the next part?”
“He sleeps through it,” said the doctor with a smile. “You might wish you could too. Anyway, coffee’s this way,” he noted before following the other two out the door.
Only Peter and the aide were left, aside from Rocket. “I’ll stay here,” Peter said to no one in particular, and dropped back into the chair.
Meditatively he rubbed between Rocket’s ears, then looked him in the eye. “Are you with me, bro?” he asked softly. “Blink twice if you understand.”
Rocket blinked twice. Peter nodded and said, “You okay with blacking out for a little while?”
The two blinks came again, but not as quickly. Peter glanced at the aide, wondering if she could see Rocket’s eyes from where she was standing, and if she would be relaying this conversation to the doctors. He brought his gaze back to Rocket. “I’m wide awake,” he informed him. “And I’m not going anywhere.”
Dr. Shanthig, when she returned, saw that Peter hadn’t moved and insisted that he at least walk around the room a little. She sent the aide to bring him a glass of water, watched him drink it, and then enlisted him to give some water to Rocket in a shallow cup. “His voicebox is about to go back online,” she explained as Rocket lapped up the drink after a few suspicious sniffs. “I’m going to ask him a few simple questions to test it, but you shouldn’t be alarmed if he can’t answer, or answers wrong. His mental state may take some time to go back to normal.”
Peter nodded, frowning deeply. “If there was a problem, you’d tell me, right?”
She paused, but then said, “Yes. But in that case you must understand it would be even more important that you do whatever I say. Even leaving the room.”
He acknowledged that he did, and the doctors pressed a gadget to the back of Rocket’s neck until something clicked on the readout screen. Dr. Shanthig took Peter’s place in front of him and offered a bare hand for him to smell again. “Can you speak?” she asked.
Rocket’s voice was hoarse, but it was his own. “Yeh.”
“Good. What’s your name?”
Peter didn’t mean to interrupt, but he couldn’t hold back a startled laugh. “Nice going, man! I thought you’d never warm up to that. Last names are cool, right?”
Dr. Shanthig gave him the side-eye, but she looked more amused than annoyed. She pointed at Peter. “Yes, and who is this?”
Rocket blew out a long breath. “Star-Lord.”
That was unexpected, too. Peter wasn’t sure what it said about what was going on in Rocket’s head, but when Dr. Shanthig raised an eyebrow at him, he nodded and said, “Right on target.”
“Good. Rocket, you’ll fall asleep within the next sixty seconds. If you’re in any pain, say so now.”
Rocket said nothing, and the operation continued. It was much less stressful to sit and watch while Rocket was asleep instead of constantly on the verge of panic, but it was also harder to stay wide awake when he didn’t need to keep thinking of ways to distract him. He noticed that his body wasn’t just stiff, but clammy, and he realized he must have been tensed up and sweating hard throughout the first phase of the surgery. It was catching up to him now.
The doctors said it was okay to keep petting Rocket’s head, though, so at least he had something to do with his hands. He started unconsciously crooning a song from Vol. 1 under his breath, but didn’t stop when he caught himself. Nobody would mind.
“Mr. Quill,” said Dr. Shanthig, and then more insistently, “Mr. Quill! We need your help.”
Peter jerked, clattering his chair. “What? What is it?” The table with Rocket on it was moving slowly away, the equipment around it collapsing into itself neatly. “What are you doing to him?”
“We’ve already done it,” said Dr. Shanthig, but her voice was serene. In fact, she was beaming. “I think he’d prefer to wake up on your ship, don’t you?”